Thursday, January 21, 2016

Why so few women in 2500 years of learning theory?

In presenting my talk on 2500 years of learning theory and theorists, and my series of 200 learning theorists, a question that I often get asked, is 'Where are the women?’ True, they are strangely absent. This is not because of any conscious or unconscious exclusion on my part. The answer is stunningly simple. Women from the Greeks through the Middle Ages, up to the 20th century were largely excluded, not only from being educators but also being educated. It is a extraordinary story of exclusion.

The dominance of religion and the fact that the dominant, global, religious leaders were all men, as were their zealot educators, meant that women were largely ignored as educators and theorists on learning throughout the Middle Ages. The Reformation certainly helped with its push towards universal schooling but the exclusion of women from the very structure of educational elites across many religions, still meant institutional exclusion. We still live with an antipathy, as we know, by certain religious factions, towards the education of women.

Even the Renaissance did little to improve the matter. Hypatia of Alexandria, a Neo-Platonist, is said to appear on Raphael’s School of Athens but there is an interesting backstory to her appearance. The funder, a Bishop asked, “Who is this woman in the middle?” “Hypatia, the most famous student of the School of Athens,” replied Raphael. “Remove her. Knowledge of her runs counter to the belief of the faithful! Otherwise, the work is acceptable,”. So he disguised her as the Pope’s nephew, Francesco Maria della Rovere I. The story, apocryphal or not, illustrates the Church’s antipathy towards women as educated intellectuals.

We had to wait until the Enlightenment to hear women’s voices. Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-97) was certainly the most original and radical (see my views here). Her attack on Rousseau’s attitudes towards the education of women resulted in a well reasoned defense of the education of women alongside men, for the sake of their own intellectual autonomy, not as Rousseau claimed (see my views here), for the pleasure of men. However, even here, her recommendation that the poor be excluded at age nine, shows a less than generous spirit towards educational equality.

The astounding fact is that women were almost entirely excluded from formal education, its institutions and even as teachers. This was cultural and legal with girls either excluded from the process of education or, if included, steered towards the domestic and social skills they needed as a wife and mother. The very notion of what it meant to be ‘educated’ was very much a male concern across two millennia. It was not until the 20th century that a semblance of equality in education, opportunities in teaching and research became possible.

The 20th century saw drastic changes, politically in terms of the right of women but also in the world of learning. The post World War 1 era saw large numbers of teachers emerge after the carnage of the war. Universities, colleges and teaching were opened up to women, as were opportunities to get degrees and positions in higher education.

Montessori (my views here) was one notable example of a woman who had a real, practical and long-lasting impact on schools and schooling from 1909 in her Montessori Method, which has open classrooms, a looser approach to teaching, more self-directed but still a strong emphasis on method and materials. Her methods certainly seemed to help Page and Brin of Google.
This struggle and the role of women in education is examined in detail by Jane Roland Martin (my view here), who saw the role of women in education as an unexamined topic. For the actual role of women in education across the ages she recommends we look not at established institutions but in more general literature and popular sources. She rightly states that the very concept of women, reflected in the academic bias in subjects, as opposed to the practical and vocational, the emphasis on schools, schooling and the ghettoisation of women into professions such as teaching and nursing. This wide set of perspectives was needed, she thought, in research into the role of women.

Online learning?
More recently, in online learning, one could also say, ‘Where are the women?’, especially on the technology side of the online learning delivery. This is to be explained by the dominance of male figures in the founding and building of large, dominant tech companies. The reasons for this are complex, even rooted in education itself, where girls are subtly discouraged from taking STEM subjects. On the non-technical, side of online learning it is very different, where both learning and online learning is much more gender balanced and there are many women experts and practitioners who are active on technology based learning.

There are few areas of human endeavour where women were so studiously excluded than in learning theory and practice. This was a process of deliberate exclusion but also because philosophical (Greeks), religious and even Enlightenment views, such as Rousseau, placed women in a secondary role. Even well into the 20th century women had to fight for recognition and that fight is far from over.

What I have included are 17 women who have played a significant role in learning theory and practice; Wollstonecraft, Edgeworth, Montessori, Donaldson, Myers, Briggs, Bjork, Martin, Colbert, Dweck, Koeller, Mamie Clark, Ruth clark, Butler, Immordino-Yang, Marsick and Gery.

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